Tag Archives: Rumpelstiltskin



This will be a compendium post, with thoughts on some of your recent posts.

First, Rumpelstiltskin. You make some good points. It is certainly true that both the king and the miller are the ones who really demonstrate the greed, not necessarily the miller’s daughter. But I’m not entirely convinced that she was the heroine you make her out to be, either. She was pretty passive in the entire affair, unlike many other Grimm heroines.

“The girl knew not how to help herself.” That’s what makes her unappealing, I think. Look at the Goose Girl, and Gretel, and the girl in the Six Swans, and so many others: they don’t accept their lot and sit there crying; they do something about their situation. The miller’s daughter could have figured out how to use the straw to make a rope and escape! Or made some other kind of deal with Rumpelstiltskin to get her out of there. And once she did make the bargain with him for her child, she promptly forgot about it. (I suspect that’s why Gruber refers to her as an “airhead.”)

It’s true that at this point, she finally gets some gumption. She tries to figure out names, and she sends out the messenger to look for more names. But again, she’s pretty passive about the whole thing. No Plan B? No attempt to have Rumpelstiltskin captured or followed? Not to mention the general passivity of just marrying the king and having the baby.

“Luck” I would agree with. “Pluck” not so much.

Next, regarding your series on What Should’ve Won. I think this is an interesting exercise for several reasons. The one thing that really stands out to me is the question of the books that stand the test of time–even of the relatively short time period that the Printz Award has been in existence. Certainly this is true of Speak, and equally, I think of Feed. I did think that Postcards from No Man’s Land was an excellent book, and as you mentioned, I was deeply impressed by America that year, but Feed, it seems to me, has already become a classic, which isn’t true of the others. In the comments, Beth mentioned its iconic cover art, and Emily said, “I think it’s the one that keeps on mattering.” They’re both right on.

Staying power is, in my opinion, one aspect of literary excellence, but it is probably the hardest one to judge in the moment. It’s certainly the thing we all talk about when second-guessing the award juries, whether it’s Printz, Newbery, or Oscar. (“Can you believe Secret of the Andes beat out Charlotte’s Web?” “Seriously? ‘How Green Was My Valley’ over ‘Citizen Kane’? ‘Forrest Gump’ over ‘Pulp Fiction’?”)

It’s also true that some books get dated sooner than others. In fact, Feed is an interesting case study, because SF does have a tendency to become overtaken by reality. I can’t help thinking of Feed every time I read about Google Glass or some new app that keeps track of your movements and suggests a different route or a new restaurant to try.

Anyway, I’m finding it quite fascinating to read these posts of yours, because they bring up books that I had forgotten, or that were underrated at the time. If I still worked in a library, I would probably do some circulation stats to find out how well some of these books are still doing.

Needless to say, I’m also feeling just a tad wary, since the next Printz year you’ll be tackling is the one I served on!

– Mom





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Some Thoughts on Rumpelstiltskin


A few weeks ago, you were talking about Liesl Shurtliff’s new novel Rump and you made some comments about “Rumpelstiltskin” that I wanted to comment on, but I had planned on reading Rump first to make my comments more relevant. Now, with my to-read pile getting precariously high, I find that I’m abandoning the idea of reading Rump, but I still want to address the fairy tale, so, since this is our blog and we can talk about whatever we want, here are some thoughts on not a new novel, but a very old story.

First, here’s what you had to say:

I think the thing that makes Rumpelstiltskin ripe for retelling is that the supposed protagonist of the tale, the miller’s daughter, is such an unappealing character. She’s a whiner, she’s lazy, she’s entitled, and–for crying out loud–she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold! So it’s very easy, and intriguing, to do as Shurtliff does, and turn Rumpelstiltskin into the hero instead of the villain.

And on a similar note, Michael Gruber, whose The Witch’s Boy you mentioned as among the recent adaptations of the tale, said this:

“Rumpelstiltskin” is the only major fairy tale in the canon that does not have a “good” protagonist, a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces. The king in the tale is a cruel miser, the miller is a venal con man, the miller’s daughter is an airhead and a liar, and the eponymous little man is the villain of the piece.

Obviously you and Gruber have picked up on something similar, so there must be something there, but I have to say that I find this interpretation exceedingly strange. Let’s look at the charges you and Gruber make against the Miller’s Daughter:

  • she’s a whiner
  • she’s lazy
  • she’s entitled
  • she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold
  • she’s an airhead
  • she’s a liar

A number of these are simply incorrect. The Miller’s Daughter is not “a liar” in any traditional sense. She never claims to be able to spin straw into gold–that’s her father.  And if Gruber had in mind that she goes back on her word to Rumpelstiltskin, well, I’ll get to that in a minute. I also see no evidence that she is “an airhead”, or “entitled.” If you see something I’m not, let me know.

I’m having trouble with her being “a whiner” as well.  Here’s the crucial piece, in the 1857 Grimm version:

When the girl was brought to him he led her into a room that was entirely filled with straw. Giving her a spinning wheel and a reel, he said, “Get to work now. Spin all night, and if by morning you have not spun this straw into gold, then you will have to die.” Then he himself locked the room, and she was there all alone.

The poor miller’s daughter sat there, and for her life she did not know what to do. She had no idea how to spin straw into gold. She became more and more afraid, and finally began to cry.

Um – who wouldn’t cry in this situation? Or beg anyone who came along to help.

Which brings us to the next point.  I would argue that she does not “agree[] to give away her child for the sake of some gold”–she agrees to give away her child in exchange for her life.  It is true that on the third night the king omits the threat of death, but I would argue that the death threat is still implied. My evidence is in the original 1812 edition of Grimm–when Rumpelstiltskin makes his bargain, the narrator says “In her distress she made the promise”.  What is “her distress” if not fear for her life? Certainly, it is not her lust for gold or the king that causes her to make the deal.  If it makes a difference, the classic 1857 version is similar: “‘Who knows what will happen,’ thought the miller’s daughter, and not knowing what else to do, she promised the little man what he demanded.” I grant that “who knows what will happen” is a little glib, but “not knowing what else to do” is pretty clear that she is in desperate straits.

My main argument in this first half of the tale is that the situation for the Miller’s Daughter is impossible–she is passed off like a piece of property from one man (her father) to another (the king), and then threatened with death for something that she cannot possibly do.  So she makes a series of promises to Rumpelstiltskin to save her life.  I would say that qualifies as “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.”

Then we get to the second half of the tale, in which Rumpelstiltskin returns to collect his half of the deal.  Here, the Miller’s Daughter shows even more gumption. Gruber might think going back on her word makes her a liar, but I would say 1) her word was given under duress, and 2) being a liar is better than being a monster.  And again we see that she is not greedy or entitled in the least. Confronted with the idea of giving up her child, she is horrified and “beg[s] him to let her keep the child, offering him great riches in its place” (in the 1812 version), or even more poignantly in the 1857, “The queen took fright and offered the little man all the wealth of the kingdom if he would let her keep the child.” Finally, though she doesn’t do it herself, she certainly initiates the intense, kingdom-wide search for the man’s name, rather than meekly allowing him to take her child.

So, again, we have a character confronted with an impossible situation who convinces the antagonist to take pity on her, then uses that small advantage to win the day.

I know this is all very academic, but I find it worth going over precisely because the interpretation(s) of fairy tales are so important to so much contemporary literature. Frankly, as much as I love The Witch’s Boy, I find Gruber’s attitude towards the Miller’s Daughter (which shows up in the novel as well) to mar the story and give far too much sympathy to a character who is in fact preying on a helpless girl in a terrible situation. As I said, I very much doubt I’ll be getting to Rump any time soon, so I don’t know if this post has any relevance for that novel, but let me know what you think of my interpretation.

– Mark


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One Year Old!


Crossreferencing is one year old today! Thanks to you and thanks to our growing crowd of readers for making it possible and fun.

Today’s topic: random thoughts generated by books I have read recently.

First, I read Rump, by Liesl Shurtliff. It’s a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. We’ve had several discussions about retellings and adaptations and we both enjoy them, for the most part. This was no exception. But it got me thinking about what it is that makes particular tale especially good for retelling and adaptation.Rump

I have read several retellings of Rumpelstiltskin in recent years, notably: A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth Bunce; The Witch’s Boy, by Michael Gruber; and The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, by Vivian Vande Velde. I think the thing that makes Rumpelstiltskin ripe for retelling is that the supposed protagonist of the tale, the miller’s daughter, is such an unappealing character. She’s a whiner, she’s lazy, she’s entitled, and–for crying out loud–she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold! So it’s very easy, and intriguing, to do as Shurtliff does, and turn Rumpelstiltskin into the hero instead of the villain.

Just a quick note on the book: Shurtliff has a great, breezy style. There are just enough (and not too many) “rump” jokes to appeal to kids, and she has created an interesting world in which other stories can be (and will be, as I understand) set.

My second random observation is about Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White, which we have both mentioned before: here and here. I really liked the book, for a lot of reasons. I loved the way Madeleine critiqued Elliot’s description of his own world. I liked the way the “real” world and the “fantasy” world bled into each other. (I thought it was great that Madeleine’s England had “colours” while Elliot’s Cello had “colors.”) a-corner-of-whiteAnd it wasn’t only that the fantasy world entered the real world, but that each affected the other. In particular, I loved the ending, in which the real science of color (or should I say colour?) and light solved the problem in the fantasy world. How many books have we read in which it is the magic from the fantasy world that heals someone or solves the problem in the real world? Nice flip-flop here!

And by the way: I totally agree that this is an atrocious cover. For one thing, how many boys are ever going to pick this book up? And it’s really a shame, because I think the humor and the snarkiness and the cleverness and the science would appeal to lots of boys. This one is ripe for a coverflip. How about just a street with a parking meter that has a tiny corner of white paper sticking out the edge of it?

And final random thought: I just read two new books by Cory Doctorow: Homeland, the sequel to Little  Brother, and Pirate Cinema. I enjoyed them both, although I thought Homeland was a little heavy on the exposition. (On the other hand, since I’m not an expert in all things computer, I found that the exposition was often needed for me to understand the plot, so there’s that.) I agree with my friend Sarajo’s reaction to Homeland: I’m definitely never going to go to Burning Man, and I’m starting to think I should remove the battery from my phone! The real-world NSA goings-on are a little too close to the story of Homeland for comfort. PirateCinemaI listened to the audio version of Pirate Cinema, which I thought was terrific. Doctorow really knows how to tell a great, fast-paced story that gets to some serious issues about copyright, digital rights management, and creativity.

Time to get back to my reading!

– Mom


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